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Entries in Hellboy [2004] (1)


Hellboy (2004)

Paved with Good Intentions

Before this week, I'd only seen Hellboy once--in a theatre, on opening weekend. I liked it, but it didn't blow me away. In the years since, I've discovered (and become a big fan of) Guillermo del Toro's other films, which made revisiting this one an eye-opening experience.

I still don't think this is a great movie. Were it not for the writing--specifically of the main character--Hellboy could have been a modern fantasy classic. The mythology and story created by del Toro and co-writer Peter Briggs (based on Mike Mignola's Dark Horse Comics series) weaves history, occultism, and multi-faceted love themes into a beautiful special effects romp. But the film's tone begins as Raiders of the Lost Ark and quickly slips into Last Crusade territory, before regaining its footing a little too late.

The movie begins in the 1940s, on a remote island where the immortal Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) works with a contingent of elite Nazis to open an extra-dimensional portal. He hopes to awaken an ancient cadre of tentacled beasts called the Seven Lords of Chaos, who will lay waste to the Earth and crown him ruler of its ashes (or something like that). Just outside the Nazi perimeter is a squad of US commandos, guided by Dr. Trevor Broom (Kevin Trainor), an expert in the supernatural.

Rasputin opens the portal as the camp is raided. The head Nazi officer, a sand-and-clocks-fueled masochist named Kroenen (Ladislav Beran) makes quick work of the GI's, but the ceremony's interruption causes Rasputin to get sucked into the netherworld. As the portal closes, a souvenir plops out from the other side: a crayon-red demon baby with a giant, stone hand and an appetite for Baby Ruth candy bars.

Fast-forward to 2004. Dr. Broom (now played by John Hurt) has raised the demon he calls "Hellboy" in secret, as part of the government-run Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. He's like a private-tutor version of the X-Men's Charles Xavier, imparting cool, Brit wisdom on a much smaller class of do-gooder freaks. Hellboy (Ron Perlman), who's grown into a hulking, cigar-chomper with the mind of a teenager, is joined by a psychic fish-man named Abe Sapien (Doug Jones voiced by David Hyde Pierce). The two had a third partner/student, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), until she sought refuge in a mental hospital after her psychically-triggered pyrotechnics got out of control.

The BPRD is government-sanctioned, but its public face, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) has grown tired of making up lies about public monster sightings and explaining away the millions of dollars in property damage resulting from Hellboy's battles against the supernatural. He recruits a young agent named John Myers (Rupert Evans) to try to rein in the problematic hero. Myers is the "gee-whiz" audience stand-in. His tour of the BPRD's underground weapons-and-training campus/freak dorm allows us entry into a bizarre world that "normal" people never see.

He has a really tough time with Hellboy, whose flippant arrogance makes him practically unmanageable. During their first assignment, in which a hell-beast named Samael gets loose in the city, Hellboy bursts onto the scene with guns and fists before Abe can inform him that two versions of the monster are born every time it gets "killed". Complicating matters is Myers' crush on Liz, who reluctantly agrees to re-join the Bureau following the re-emergence of Rasputin.

Yes, the evil wizard is resurrected by Kroenen and his Russian mistress, Ilsa (Biddy Hodson). Together, they hatch a new plan to bring forth the Seven Lords of Chaos by forcing Hellboy to open a new portal using his stone hand as a key.

From here, Hellboy moves at just about a perfect pace, its parallel stories of good and evil tribes of three is exciting and a real visual treat. Del Toro is the only person alive who could have directed this film. His Gothic sensibilities are the college thesis to Tim Burton's grade-school doodles, and I can only imagine the mutual geek-gasm resulting from his first meeting with Mignola. You could take just about any frame from this movie and get lost in the intricate-without-being-showy details of everything from the weaponry to the furniture (I paused and back-tracked to admire a chair in Broom's library for a good ten seconds). The lighting, set decoration, and costuming all contribute to one of the most fully realized and lived-in fantasy universes I've seen; Hellboy is utterly engrossing.


As I said earlier, the big problem here is with the main character. Taken as a whole, there is nothing wrong with the way Hellboy is written or with the way Perlman plays him. He's supposed to be an immature bad-ass who learns restraint and acceptance over the course of the story. But his penchant for doing stupid things and spouting off one-liners is never cute or funny. Both times I watched this movie, I thought about how much time and trouble could have been saved if the big guy didn't act retarded. I don't mean that as a slight; I seriously wondered if there was a part of Hellboy's brain that hadn't developed past the age of five--let alone thirteen, or however old his mind is supposed to be. I expect that kind of behavior out of the Jersey Shore cast mates, not big-screen superheroes.

But I can't be mad at Hellboy. His actions have consequences, and it only takes half the picture to realize that. In the end, he becomes a bit more mature, realizing that sarcasm is warranted only towards the end of a battle--not before it's begun.

It's just too bad that I couldn't have grown along with him instead of sitting in judgment of him. There's a very fine line between glamorizing ignorance and setting up an ignorant character for redemption and/or punishment (the same way that Oliver Stone's Scarface is, technically, an anti-drug film). Had Hellboy been a slightly cocky, serious adventurer--in the tradition of Indiana Jones--he would have meshed better with the tone of the movie he was in. The opening ten minutes sell us an imaginative, creepy thrill-ride, but we soon learn that the guy at the wheel is a dopey adolescent with phone books strapped to his shoes.